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Education, ‘three Es’ and McUniversities: Some Heretical Thoughts



Keynote Address delivered by Panduka Karunanayake Senior Lecturer in the Department of Clinical Medicine, Faculty of Medicine, University of Colombo, at 16th Annual Higher Education Conference in Sri Lanka, Sri Lanka Association for Improving Higher Education Effectiveness on July 24, 2020: Colombo.

In this Keynote Address, let me share with you some heretical thoughts on higher education’s ‘three E’s’: Equity, Effectiveness, Efficiency. I will also visit the concept of McDonaldization of Society (Ritzer 2006), and its incarnation in the universities, the McUniversities. My main argument is that external pressures and transformations have changed the nature of higher education, and that it is time we recognised this and took corrective steps. A crucial step in this response is having our own definition of higher education, no matter how difficult this is. I will also try to connect up with the current ‘new normal’ that has arisen with the emergence of the COVID-19 pandemic – with its own threat of further, externally-imposed change. For the sake of sticking to my time I will considerably abbreviate my talk, but the full text will be circulated by your Association.

“Define, or be defined”

Your Association is dedicated to improving the effectiveness of higher education. To start this onerous task, we should first define, or at least describe, higher education. The iconoclastic psychiatrist Thomas Szasz warned us that if we didn’t define ourselves, others would go on to define us: “Define, or be defined.” We will then be relegated to a life of living that definition or endlessly contesting it. I would ask you to dwell on this and to ask yourself, Has this happenned to us already?

This is even more important in the immediate aftermath of a major event like the COVID-19 pandemic, after which we can expect a lot of change (which has been called the ‘new normal’). At such times, it is our definition that will allow us to safely navigate ourselves through the turbulent sea of change, and preserve higher education and seek its effectiveness.

Defining higher education is, however, a very difficult task. A few academics have nevertheless tried to grapple with it, and my own favourite is Ronald Barnett (1990; 1996). Barnett asked many of the right questions, even if he could not conclusively answer them. He might not have given the final, clinching definition or even a description of higher education. Indeed, we perhaps don’t even know what higher education is not! But thanks to academics like him, we at least know that we don’t know – and that, as Socrates said, is the first step to wisdom and, as Bloom’s revised taxonomy puts it, is in the highest knowledge category, known as metacognition.

And it was also Barnett’s writings that convinced me that we must engage with these problems, not as a hobby or an afterthought, but as a priority. Some academics are happy to live their lives in accordance with a definition given to them. When they see other academics like me who think about these issues, they would accuse us of wasteful self-indulgence, because we do not seem to contribute to the knowledge production that the externally given definitions demand. But Barnett disagreed, and pointed out that, on the contrary, not to think about these issues is high hypocrisy. He asked, How can we not self-examine ourselves when we make it our business to examine everything around us?

Higher education in
a changing world

Higher education worldwide has changed drastically over the last six or seven decades, due to external pressure. For instance, in the 1960s the emergence of the knowledge industries created an increased demand for knowledge workers, who had to be educated to the tertiary level, leading to what is known as the massification of universities – the universities changed from elite organisations that served a small number of educationally-gifted students to large-scale organisations serving students with a wider range of abilities.

In the 1970s there was a clear, watertight demarcation between higher education and further education, both of which were forms of tertiary education. Further education spread across a wide spectrum and included various types of technical and vocational education. Some of these were subsequently incorporated to universities, due to a constellation of factors. It was then no longer quite clear whether university education was synonymous with higher education. It certainly seemed like a marriage of convenience, where both partners chose to ignore their incompatibilities so that they can enjoy the considerable benefits of being nominally paired, if not conjugated. And the term further education is no longer in much use.

Some of the features that were believed to belong with higher education rather than further education, such as critical thinking, were then identified, dissected, listed and added to curricula, as if higher education was no longer the mystery. But in time, the vacuousness of this approach has come to light. For instance, critical thinking has been separated from critical thinking skills and other elusive aspects of criticality, variously called critical being, critical self-reflection and so on (Barnett 1996: 11-22). And there are other aspects of higher education too that are similarly elusive and are hovering around us and teasing us for our impetuosity.

The 1970s witnessed economic woes for the world, even the West, with the so-called slow economic depression. State funding for universities was reduced, even while the demand for graduates from the new knowledge industries was increasing. In that context, by the 1990s, economics and its new methods became increasingly important in government policies and strategies worldwide, pushed especially by the World Bank, leading to the talk of the three E’s of education: Equity, Effectiveness, Efficiency (Lockheed and Hanushek 1994).

Another change came in the 1990s after the fall of the Soviet bloc, when capitalist industries quickly gained control over all forms of life – human, animal, plant – and even the inanimate environment, and all roads led to Washington. In this new unipolar world, knowledge production underwent a marked, cataclysmic transformation too, in the space of a few decades (Gibbons et al 1994). Since funding sources for research in universities also shifted hands from unrestricted governmental grants to granting agencies that laid down restrictive criteria of prioritisation and selection, it was only a matter of time before research in universities itself changed its nature (see Table 1).

This was soon followed by globalisation and the free flow of financial capital and human resources throughout the globe, leading to a vastly increased entry of private capital into higher education and the emergence of the internationalisation of higher education, cross-border higher education and the birth of franchised degrees. My favourite author for this period and its issues is Philip Altbach (Altbach and Peterson1999; Altbach and Umakoshi 2004; Altbach 2006).

Today, academics like Angus Kennedy (2017) has had to point out that universities have lost their way (emphases in the original):

“Rather than being relevant to society, instead the role of the university is a model of how society should be. Its foundation showed that society believed there were higher things, things more important than the material and mundane, and that they were the rightful objects of study by those who had a higher calling, a more noble profession than soldiery, or buying and selling in the marketplace.”

Perhaps, the universities had not been ready for these decades with a definition of higher education of its own, or perhaps its own idea of higher education could not stand its ground. Imperceptibly, the three E’s became the new strategies for the universities. Academics didn’t have their own definition or had to ignore it – and the universities underwent change.

If universities were by now having difficulty identifying their exact role in research, almost a century before that, they had had difficulty identifying their role in teaching. This was in the era before the emergence of the research university, when the university’s role in society was limited to teaching and service. Our own Ananda Coomaraswamy, who pioneered the struggle for a national university for Ceylon at the turn of the twentieth century, had written thus:

“Modern education is designed to fit us to take our place in the counting-house and at the chain-belt; a real culture breeds a race of men able to ask, What kind of work is worth doing?”

Another problem that was thrown in, some time between Coomaraswamy and Barnett, was the challenge posed by post-modernism. Post-modernism has an intense mistrust of all univeralisms. So naturally, an idea of the university or higher education that stretched across all localities, disciplines and specialisations and claimed to cover them all had to first confront post-modernism. And that confrontation too hasn’t gone smoothly.

Please don’t misunderstand me. I am not trying to overwhelm you or discourage you from doing all your good work. I am only begging you to face this history and these difficulties, and to define yourself, or at least describe yourself, or at the very least state what you are clearly not. In a way, I am asking you to ask Coomaraswamy’s question in relation to our own work in higher education: What kind of work is worth doing? Otherwise one day you will wake up and realise that others have defined you exactly as what you were not planning to be, and you will have to choose between either contesting this definition or living your life in accordance with it.

In fact, that might already be the case, except that we haven’t yet woken up to it. For instance, every morning when I wake up I have to behold, right in front of my house, a well-known private international school offering primary and secondary education that calls itself “International School of Higher Education”!

The task of maintaining our identity, or at least renegotiating it, in the face of changing societal, intellectual and institutional pressures is certainly challenging – and my plea for all of us is to face it, instead of ignoring it. This has become even more important in the COVID-19 world, when more externally-imposed change is on the way.

(To be continued)



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Islamophobia and the threat to democratic development



There’s an ill more dangerous and pervasive than the Coronavirus that’s currently sweeping Sri Lanka. That is the fear to express one’s convictions. Across the public sector of the country in particular many persons holding high office are stringently regulating and controlling the voices of their consciences and this bodes ill for all and the country.

The corrupting impact of fear was discussed in this column a couple of weeks ago when dealing with the military coup in Myanmar. It stands to the enduring credit of ousted Myanmarese Head of Government Aung San Suu Kyi that she, perhaps for the first time in the history of modern political thought, singled out fear, and not power, as the principal cause of corruption within the individual; powerful or otherwise.

To be sure, power corrupts but the corrupting impact of fear is graver and more devastating. For instance, the fear in a person holding ministerial office or in a senior public sector official, that he would lose position and power as a result of speaking out his convictions and sincere beliefs on matters of the first importance, would lead to a country’s ills going unaddressed and uncorrected.

Besides, the individual concerned would be devaluing himself in the eyes of all irrevocably and revealing himself to be a person who would be willing to compromise his moral integrity for petty worldly gain or a ‘mess of pottage’. This happens all the while in Lankan public life. Some of those who have wielded and are wielding immense power in Sri Lanka leave very much to be desired from these standards.

It could be said that fear has prevented Sri Lanka from growing in every vital respect over the decades and has earned for itself the notoriety of being a directionless country.

All these ills and more are contained in the current controversy in Sri Lanka over the disposal of the bodies of Covid victims, for example. The Sri Lankan polity has no choice but to abide by scientific advice on this question. Since authorities of the standing of even the WHO have declared that the burial of the bodies of those dying of Covid could not prove to be injurious to the wider public, the Sri Lankan health authorities could go ahead and sanction the burying of the bodies concerned. What’s preventing the local authorities from taking this course since they claim to be on the side of science? Who or what are they fearing? This is the issue that’s crying out to be probed and answered.

Considering the need for absolute truthfulness and honesty on the part of all relevant persons and quarters in matters such as these, the latter have no choice but to resign from their positions if they are prevented from following the dictates of their consciences. If they are firmly convinced that burials could bring no harm, they are obliged to take up the position that burials should be allowed.

If any ‘higher authority’ is preventing them from allowing burials, our ministers and officials are conscience-bound to renounce their positions in protest, rather than behave compromisingly and engage in ‘double think’ and ‘double talk’. By adopting the latter course they are helping none but keeping the country in a state of chronic uncertainty, which is a handy recipe for social instabiliy and division.

In the Sri Lankan context, the failure on the part of the quarters that matter to follow scientific advice on the burials question could result in the aggravation of Islamophobia, or hatred of the practitioners of Islam, in the country. Sri Lanka could do without this latter phobia and hatred on account of its implications for national stability and development. The 30 year war against separatist forces was all about the prevention by military means of ‘nation-breaking’. The disastrous results for Sri Lanka from this war are continuing to weigh it down and are part of the international offensive against Sri Lanka in the UNHCR.

However, Islamophobia is an almost world wide phenomenon. It was greatly strengthened during Donald Trump’s presidential tenure in the US. While in office Trump resorted to the divisive ruling strategy of quite a few populist authoritarian rulers of the South. Essentially, the manoeuvre is to divide and rule by pandering to the racial prejudices of majority communities.

It has happened continually in Sri Lanka. In the initial post-independence years and for several decades after, it was a case of some populist politicians of the South whipping-up anti-Tamil sentiments. Some Tamil politicians did likewise in respect of the majority community. No doubt, both such quarters have done Sri Lanka immeasurable harm. By failing to follow scientific advice on the burial question and by not doing what is right, Sri Lanka’s current authorities are opening themselves to the charge that they are pandering to religious extremists among the majority community.

The murderous, destructive course of action adopted by some extremist sections among Muslim communities world wide, including of course Sri Lanka, has not earned the condemnation it deserves from moderate Muslims who make-up the preponderant majority in the Muslim community. It is up to moderate opinion in the latter collectivity to come out more strongly and persuasively against religious extremists in their midst. It will prove to have a cementing and unifying impact among communities.

It is not sufficiently appreciated by governments in the global South in particular that by voicing for religious and racial unity and by working consistently towards it, they would be strengthening democratic development, which is an essential condition for a country’s growth in all senses.

A ‘divided house’ is doomed to fall; this is the lesson of history. ‘National security’ cannot be had without human security and peaceful living among communities is central to the latter. There cannot be any ‘double talk’ or ‘politically correct’ opinions on this question. Truth and falsehood are the only valid categories of thought and speech.

Those in authority everywhere claiming to be democratic need to adopt a scientific outlook on this issue as well. Studies conducted on plural societies in South Asia, for example, reveal that the promotion of friendly, cordial ties among communities invariably brings about healing among estranged groups and produces social peace. This is the truth that is waiting to be acted upon.


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Pakistan’s love of Sri Lanka



By Sanjeewa Jayaweera

It was on 3rd January 1972 that our family arrived in Karachi from Moscow. Our departure from Moscow had been delayed for a few weeks due to the military confrontation between Pakistan and India. It ended on 16th December 1971. After that, international flights were not permitted for some time.

The contrast between Moscow and Karachi was unbelievable. First and foremost, Moscow’s temperature was near minus 40 degrees centigrade, while in Karachi, it was sunny and a warm 28 degrees centigrade. However, what struck us most was the extreme warmth with which the airport authorities greeted our family. As my father was a diplomat, we were quickly ushered to the airport’s VIP Lounge. We were in transit on our way to Rawalpindi, the airport serving the capital of Islamabad.

We quickly realized that the word “we are from Sri Lanka” opened all doors just as saying “open sesame” gained entry to Aladdin’s cave! The broad smile, extreme courtesy, and genuine warmth we received from the Pakistani people were unbelievable.

This was all to do with Mrs Sirima Bandaranaike’s decision to allow Pakistani aircraft to land in Colombo to refuel on the way to Dhaka in East Pakistan during the military confrontation between Pakistan and India. It was a brave decision by Mrs Bandaranaike (Mrs B), and the successive governments and Sri Lanka people are still enjoying the fruits of it. Pakistan has been a steadfast and loyal supporter of our country. They have come to our assistance time and again in times of great need when many have turned their back on us. They have indeed been an “all-weather” friend of our country.

Getting back to 1972, I was an early beneficiary of Pakistani people’s love for Sri Lankans. I failed the entrance exam to gain entry to the only English medium school in Islamabad! However, when I met the Principal, along with my father, he said, “Sanjeewa, although you failed the entrance exam, I will this time make an exception as Sri Lankans are our dear friends.” After that, the joke around the family dinner table was that I owed my education in Pakistan to Mrs B!

At school, my brother and I were extended a warm welcome and always greeted “our good friends from Sri Lanka.” I felt when playing cricket for our college; our runs were cheered more loudly than of others.

One particular incident that I remember well was when the Embassy received a telex from the Foreign inistry. It requested that our High Commissioner seek an immediate meeting with the Prime Minister of Pakistan, Mr Zulifikar Ali Bhutto (ZB), and convey a message from Mrs B. The message requested that an urgent shipment of rice be dispatched to Sri Lanka as there would be an imminent rice shortage. As the Ambassador was not in the station, the responsibility devolved on my father.

It usually takes about a week or more to get an audience with the Prime Minister (PM) of a foreign country due to their busy schedule. However, given the urgency, my father spoke to the Foreign Ministry’s Permanent Sectary, who fortunately was our neighbour and sought an urgent appointment. My father received a call from the PM’s secretary around 10 P.M asking him to come over to the PM’s residence. My father met ZB around midnight. ZB was about to retire to bed and, as such, was in his pyjamas and gown enjoying a cigar! He had greeted my father and had asked, “Mr Jayaweera, what can we do for great friend Madam Bandaranaike?. My father conveyed the message from Colombo and quietly mentioned that there would be riots in the country if there is no rice!

ZB had immediately got the Food Commissioner of Pakistan on the line and said, “I want a shipload of rice to be in Colombo within the next 72 hours!” The Food Commissioner reverted within a few minutes, saying that nothing was available and the last export shipment had left the port only a few hours ago to another country. ZB had instructed to turn the ship around and send it to Colombo. This despite protests from the Food Commissioner about terms and conditions of the Letter of Credit prohibiting non-delivery. Sri Lanka got its delivery of rice!

The next was the visit of Mrs B to Pakistan. On arrival in Rawalpindi airport, she was given a hero’s welcome, which Pakistan had previously only offered to President Gaddafi of Libya, who financially backed Pakistan with his oil money. That day, I missed school and accompanied my parents to the airport. On our way, we witnessed thousands of people had gathered by the roadside to welcome Mrs B.

When we walked to the airport’s tarmac, thousands of people were standing in temporary stands waving Sri Lanka and Pakistan flags and chanting “Sri Lanka Pakistan Zindabad.” The noise emanating from the crowd was as loud and passionate as the cheering that the Pakistani cricket team received during a test match. It was electric!

I believe she was only the second head of state given the privilege of addressing both assemblies of Parliament. The other being Gaddafi. There was genuine affection from Mrs B amongst the people of Pakistan.

I always remember the indefatigable efforts of Mr Abdul Haffez Kardar, a cabinet minister and the President of the Pakistan Cricket Board. From around 1973 onwards, he passionately championed Sri Lanka’s cause to be admitted as a full member of the International Cricket Council (ICC) and granted test status. Every year, he would propose at the ICC’s annual meeting, but England and Australia’s veto kept us out until 1981.

I always felt that our Cricket Board made a mistake by not inviting Pakistan to play our inaugural test match. We should have appreciated Mr Kardar and Pakistan’s efforts. In 1974 the Pakistan board invited our team for a tour involving three test matches and a few first-class games. Most of those who played in our first test match was part of that tour, and no doubt gained significant exposure playing against a highly talented Pakistani team.

Several Pakistani greats were part of the Pakistan and India team that played a match soon after the Central Bank bomb in Colombo to prove that it was safe to play cricket in Colombo. It was a magnificent gesture by both Pakistan and India. Our greatest cricket triumph was in Pakistan when we won the World Cup in 1996. I am sure the players and those who watched the match on TV will remember the passionate support our team received that night from the Pakistani crowd. It was like playing at home!

I also recall reading about how the Pakistani government air freighted several Multi Barrell artillery guns and ammunition to Sri Lanka when the A rmy camp in Jaffna was under severe threat from the LTTE. This was even more important than the shipload of rice that ZB sent. This was crucial as most other countries refused to sell arms to our country during the war.

Time and again, Pakistan has steadfastly supported our country’s cause at the UNHCR. No doubt this year, too, their diplomats will work tirelessly to assist our country.

We extend a warm welcome to Mr Imran Khan, the Prime Minister of Pakistan. He is a truly inspirational individual who was undoubtedly an excellent cricketer. Since retirement from cricket, he has decided to get involved in politics, and after several years of patiently building up his support base, he won the last parliamentary elections. I hope that just as much as he galvanized Sri Lankan cricketers, his political journey would act as a catalyst for people like Kumar Sangakkara and Mahela Jayawardene to get involved in politics. Cricket has been called a “gentleman’s game.” Whilst politics is far from it!.


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Covid-19 health rules disregarded at entertainment venues?



Believe me, seeing certain videos, on social media, depicting action, on the dance floor, at some of these entertainment venues, got me wondering whether this Coronavirus pandemic is REAL!

To those having a good time, at these particular venues, and, I guess, the management, as well, what the world is experiencing now doesn’t seem to be their concerned.

Obviously, such irresponsible behaviour could create more problems for those who are battling to halt the spread of Covid-19, and the new viriant of Covid, in our part of the world.

The videos, on display, on social media, show certain venues, packed to capacity – with hardly anyone wearing a mask, and social distancing…only a dream..

How can one think of social distancing while gyrating, on a dance floor, that is over crowded!

If this trend continues, it wouldn’t be a surprise if Coronavirus makes its presence felt…at such venues.

And, then, what happens to the entertainment scene, and those involved in this field, especially the musicians? No work, whatsoever!

Lots of countries have closed nightclubs, and venues, where people gather, in order to curtail the spread of this deadly virus that has already claimed the lives of thousands.

Thailand did it and the country is still having lots of restrictions, where entertainment is concerned, and that is probably the reason why Thailand has been able to control the spread of the Coronavirus.

With a population of over 69 million, they have had (so far), a little over 25,000 cases, and 83 deaths, while we, with a population of around 21 million, have over 80,000 cases, and more than 450 deaths.

I’m not saying we should do away with entertainment – totally – but we need to follow a format, connected with the ‘new normal,’ where masks and social distancing are mandatory requirements at these venues. And, dancing, I believe, should be banned, at least temporarily, as one can’t maintain the required social distance, while on the dance floor, especially after drinks.

Police spokesman DIG Ajith Rohana keeps emphasising, on TV, radio, and in the newspapers, the need to adhere to the health regulations, now in force, and that those who fail to do so would be penalised.

He has also stated that plainclothes officers would move around to apprehend such offenders.

Perhaps, he should instruct his officers to pay surprise visits to some of these entertainment venues.

He would certainly have more than a bus load of offenders to be whisked off for PCR/Rapid Antigen tests!

I need to quote what Dr. H.T. Wickremasinghe said in his article, published in The Island of Tuesday, February 16th, 2021:

“…let me conclude, while emphasising the need to continue our general public health measures, such as wearing masks, social distancing, and avoiding crowded gatherings, to reduce the risk of contact with an infected person.

“There is no science to beat common sense.”

But…do some of our folks have this thing called COMMON SENSE!


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